If determinism happens to be true, then people just do what the laws of Physics governing the chemical interactions of neurons in their brains make them do. In such a scenario, wouldn't it be unfair to punish people in Hell (or any other form of eternal punishment for that matter)?

If determinism is true, then people have no choice but to do what they are determined to do, including those people who behave immorally. If the goal is to put an end to immorality, then there are 2 options:

  1. Put an end to the existence of people with immoral behaviour.
  2. Keep the immoral people alive but correct their behavior so that they stop behaving immorally afterwards.

Given these two options, an eternal punishment is nonsensical. Let's see why:

First, eternal punishment is not compatible with option 1. This conclusion is obvious: if someone is under eternal punishment, then that person must exist in the first place, so option 1 is incompatible with eternal punishment.

Second, eternal punishment is not compatible with option 2 either. Although it does keep people alive, it fails to correct people's behaviour: since the punishment never stops, people undergoing an eternal punishment are never given the chance to use the traumatic punishment feedback to correct their behaviour (they would have to wait an infinite amount of time before they change their behaviour, which is logically impossible). Therefore option 2 is not compatible with eternal punishment either.

Therefore, in a deterministic universe only temporary and accurately designed punishments would make sense. Accurately designed so that the person stops behaving immorally afterwards (otherwise it would be an unsuccessful and therefore unnecessary punishment).

A possible attempt of workaround would be to claim that determinism is false and that people behave non-deterministically. Then, you could say that people behave randomly. But if your decisions are random, then behaving morally or immorally would be a matter of chance: either you are lucky that your decision is moral by chance, or you are unlucky that your decision is immoral by chance. In such a random scenario, sending someone to an eternal punishment for behaving immorally would still not make sense. First of all, as argued for the deterministic case, options 1 and 2 are not compatible either. But with randomness the situation is even worse: even temporary punishment is nonsensical. In a deterministic universe at least you can use temporary punishments to correct people's behaviour, but in a non-deterministic/random universe, you cannot control future events with past events, since the premise of causality no longer holds. Therefore, if you punish someone today, that person might get unlucky and behave immorally by random chance tomorrow anyway.

Finally, if you claim that people have "free-will", then please give a formal definition of that term, explain how it is different from both randomness and determinism and finally show how it would justify an eternal punishment (if at all).

  • 5
    I would say it is unfair if determinism is false as well.
    – rus9384
    May 11, 2018 at 6:35
  • 1
    But if determinism is true, isn't "eternal punishment" (or not) also already irrevocably predetermined, whereby "unfair" is kind of a moot point?
    – user19423
    May 11, 2018 at 7:06
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    "If the goal is to put an end to immorality". I'm not sure that's what the concept of eternal punishment is about. It's not about deterrence, it's about some concept of retributive justice or meriting punishment. "The wages of sin is death" comes to mind. Here, "wages" captures the sense earning, meriting, deserving.
    – Chelonian
    May 11, 2018 at 14:35
  • @JohnForkosh: I'd even say that determinism runs contrary to the very idea of "eternal punishment in hell", which presupposes Cartesian dualism and some theory of Interactionism, none of which I am aware of could allow for determinism.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 11, 2018 at 14:55
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    @Conifold, check out this question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/52088/…
    – xwb
    May 12, 2018 at 4:04

4 Answers 4


Your question has been addressed so much within the Christian thinking-and-writing community that most folks don't want to talk about it anymore. It can be expressed as, "how could a good God punish people who had no ability to avoid doing wrong?" ...and... "how could God be just if he chooses whom to save?" ...and... "are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?"

The Christian version of "determinism" is called "predestination", a word from the Bible where God is said to have predestined people for salvation. Not all Christians acknowledge such predestination, while some think that God predestines people for damnation as well as for predestination (a position sometimes called double predestination or hyper-Calvinism).

That God is just (i.e. not unfair) is not doubted by any of these factions within Christianity, nor is it doubted that God is generous. I will not offer the explanation for how this compiles together with hyper-Calvinism, but I assure you it is well-explored in the literature. Traditional Christian thinking does not suppose that human beings simply annihilate if they are not in heaven at death.

Christian writer William Lane Craig acknowledges human free will, and defends this without resorting to Biblical authority or denying divine omnipotence. Here is an example of this defense (which contains handy definitions for free will). https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/free-will

Also, unless I got it wrong here, Craig's view of free will vs. predestination is not "Arminian" or "Calvinist" but "Molinist". You can read more about this here. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/questions-on-molinism-compatibilism-and-free-will

Christian author C.S. Lewis made a fictional version of hell in his book "The Great Divorce" which offers a rational picture of hell that doesn't depart from traditional Christian positions. One memorable vignette is of a man visiting the damned Napoleon in his hell apartment... Napoleon was alone, anxiously wandering back and forth, back and forth, running through his mind all the things he should have or could have done to beat the English after all.


I’d like to express some opinions, but in regard to social punishment, not eternal punishment, of criminals.

Free will has many versions. Two important versions are the following.

One of them uses determinism as the criterion whether the will is free. If determinism is true, then free will does not exist. If not, then free will exists.

Another uses the interference on the process of decision making as the criterion. If there is no interference (such as no one injects psychoactive drugs into us or uses magnetic stimulation to interfere our brains) in the process of decision making, then it is free will.. If there is interference, then it is not free will.

Still there are other versions of free will. (Please see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ and https://mindtheory.net/chapter-12/ )

We are not coerced by anything to use only free will in the first sense as the basis of judgement. A criminal whose mind is not interfered by anything has free will in the second sense that he/she makes the decision freely, considering all the relevant factors (including the laws and consequences of his/her decision). He/she can thus be justly punished by this definition of free will.

  • If determinism is false, how do you know free will exists, and not, for example, randomness?
    – xwb
    May 18, 2018 at 15:42
  • Social punishment would be an example of temporary punishment which I talked about in my question, which makes sense if you want to correct the punished's behaviour, or if you want to protect the rest of society from his dangerous conduct. But what about eternal punishment? Do you see any possible justification for that?
    – xwb
    May 18, 2018 at 15:47
  • Whether free will exists or not depends on the definition of the term “free will”. For example, as I discussed previously, if it is defined as the process of the mind to decide freely without interference on itself and its process of making a decision, then it does not matter whether there are limitations (from laws, rules, customs, etc.) on the decision or not; as long as the process of decision making occurs freely without interference, it is free will…
    – user287279
    May 18, 2018 at 17:53
  • ... Likewise, it does not matter whether the process of making a decision is deterministic by nature (or something else) or not; as long as the process of decision making occurs freely without interference, it is free will. Thus, in this sense, we always have free will, even if our decision is predetermined by nature (or something else). (from mindtheory.net/chapter-12 )
    – user287279
    May 18, 2018 at 17:54
  • But if free will is defined as the process of the mind to decide without determinism in the process, then free will exists if determinism is false and does not exist if determinism is true. Thus whether free will exist or not is just the result of definition.
    – user287279
    May 18, 2018 at 17:55

I am not a determinist, I believe in free will, and I believe people will be destroyed.

Free will is the ability to act on your loyalties and interactions with individuals in a just or unjust way. It is this interaction that defines morality. People are on the whole moral, or conform to a group morality to enable social activity. Unfortunately failure builds up and destroys their integrity over time if not resolved.

How far determinism works, no one knows, but much of what we do is shaped by our biology and circumstances. In the christian faith, the revelation is there is a way of living that leads to eternal life. It is founded on a relationship and communion with the eternal. The claim is this frees the individual from the bondage to determinism.

Your description of outcomes, leads people to universalism, a purgatory where everyone gets reformed in the end, or to painting everyone as terribly evil worthy of eternal torture because they are innately eternal beings.

I stand between the two. People have much of value and going for them, but when faced with absolute purity, will just be blown away and not able to cope. The hope of life, does not negate the offer or the potential or its value.

In a world without the ultimate connection to the eternal, there is only one outcome. It is the connection to the eternal that determines whether there is an answer or not. We know so much more than at any other time in history, yet we seem no more free and happy than we were before.

So to summarise an eternal torture for a mortal existence does not make sense to me. Eternal life for finding an eternal foundation to what is love and morality does.

John Stott is probably a good source on this position https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/judgement-hell.php#.WvW8ne8vwdU


If determinism is true, and if a society becomes aware that determinism is true, it makes sense to punish people in the absence of any other means of deterrence (assuming the wellbeing of society is desired).

The punishment of eternity in a hell (presumably imposed by a god who is beyond the laws of determinism) - regardless of the truth of determinism - seems just only if you accept the punishing god as an arbiter of morality.

Otherwise, it is difficult to conceive of how an eternal, hellish punishment might ever be just. Any god who imposed it would seem to be grossly unjust by most human standards.

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